What can Rwanda’s experiment with gender quotas teach the United States? It’s clear that quotas, if enforced, increase women’s political power at least to some degree, and the symbolic value of women in power can have trickle-down effects. While Americans might bristle at a constitutional mandate, political parties could adopt voluntary quotas, pledging that a certain percentage of the candidates they run will be women. That would be easier for Democrats than Republicans: There are twice as many female Democratic senators as Republican, and nearly seven times as many Democratic congresswomen as Republican. Still, neither party is at parity, let alone even approaching Rwanda’s numbers.
But quotas alone don’t bring equality into being. Once in office, women need to be able to legislate and set their priorities, not simply take orders from an executive or party leader. And to be effective advocates for women more generally, elected officials have to be accountable to robust civilian movements. “What Rwanda really shows is that for women’s empowerment to be meaningful, to be durable, to be impactful and felt in the lives of ordinary women, it has to be coupled with strong civil society organizations and a women’s movement that is able to hold the government accountable and operate in the space between the government and ordinary people,” Berry says.
Representation without true political freedom is a feminist farce, Rwigara believes. Until all of a country’s citizens can speak, organize and compete for power without fear, she says, “the percentage of women in Parliament is just a number.”
Jill Filipovic is a journalist and author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.